Saddam outfoxes the west again

Why does the US persist in a policy that makes the Iraqi leader stronger, richer and more popular th

A state of war exists between the United States and Iraq. American warplanes patrol the northern and southern skies, and Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries take futile pot-shots at them. The F-16s fire back. Iraq announces, as it did on Monday, the heroic deaths of martyrs who defended the homeland from foreign aggression. The kill ratio cannot be measured since, however many Iraqis die, the number of Americans killed remains zero. Why, most of the world wonders, does the US persist in a battle that divides the international community, wins sympathy for the mass murderer Saddam Hussein and compels more of the world's Muslims to want to shoot American diplomats and tourists?

President Bill Clinton and his administration, like the Republicans before them, insist that their battle is with the Iraqi regime, not the Iraqi people. Washington duly proclaims its intention not to harm Iraq's civilians even as it imposes economic sanctions that malnourish them and leave them without medicines and anaesthetics. It declares it has their interests at heart on every occasion it drops bombs on them. In the four-day aerial barrage before Christmas, at least 68 non-combatant Iraqis died. So far as anyone can tell, Saddam Hussein is still alive. And in this war, brother, the bad guy's winning.

In the eight years since Iraq retreated from occupied Kuwait, the US has repeatedly announced its three objectives: enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions; elimination of Iraq's arms of mass destruction - chemical and biological weapons, long-range delivery systems and nuclear research; and, finally, the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. Yet the US calls on this very regime to obey international law without offering it any incentive to do so. Further, it does not say whether a future Iraqi government would face the same restrictions on its military and economic power.

For eight years, the US has enforced economic sanctions that have starved, impoverished and destroyed the health of the Iraqi people with whom it says it has no quarrel. For eight years, the US has reserved the right to bomb Iraq. Knowing this, Saddam provokes America to generate support for his leadership in the Arab world. For eight years, the US has given money, weapons and training to Iraqi dissidents in the north, who have as little hope of defeating Saddam as they have of uniting their disparate forces. By any measure, the past eight years have constituted a long term of failure. So, what is the fall-back position? Well, more of the same. And if that fails again, well, even more of more of the same.

The only successful aspect of the policy came from the Unscom inspections, however much Saddam's minions impeded and delayed them. On Unscom's own analysis, its inspectors have found and destroyed most of Saddam's stocks. Unscom was fortunate to have received information on weapons programmes from some of their architects. Among these were two of Saddam's sons-in-law, who foolishly returned home from exile in Amman to be murdered for treason. Another was Dr Nassir al-Hindawi, an American-trained microbiologist who turned over to Unscom most of the documents on the germ warfare programme he had himself instigated. Saddam has now arrested Hindawi, another unprotected victim of co-operation with the UN and the US. Others were the Kurds and Shi-ites who worked for the CIA in the northern city of Irbil, where American forces turned a blind eye to their slaughter by the Iraqi army. Only an exceptionally brave Iraqi technician would dare to tell the US or UN what he knows about weapons, so long as the US, which has not even asked to speak to Hindawi, lacks the means or willingness to spare him the torments of Saddam's torture chambers.

The US has repeatedly undermined Unscom's credibility, particularly by permitting one American inspector, Major Scott Ridder, to share his discoveries with the Israelis. This was well beyond Unscom's terms of reference, and the Iraqis reacted accordingly. The US dealt Unscom its death-blow with the four-day pre-Ramadan missile and bomb display. Tariq Aziz, the moustachioed mouthpiece of the regime, predictably announced after the bombardment that the weapons inspectors could not return. What can the US do about it? Bomb again? Sooner or later, someone in Washington will realise that Saddam, who provokes the attacks, needs them. They cost him nothing. The populace in other Arab countries rallies to him, rather than their own leaders, as the champion who faces down the west.

Over eight years, far longer than the UN expected, UN inspectors have significantly reduced Iraq's stores of weapons. Iraq has been unable to obtain a significant supply of military spare parts or to modernise its armed forces. The army, already weakened by the allied onslaught of 1991, is using arms that have become obsolete in the last eight years. The US speaks of containment, but the word has become meaningless. There is nothing to contain. Iraq cannot invade Iran or Kuwait again, because its armed forces are no match for the Iranian army or for the American forces protecting Kuwait.

The Iraqi army, as a threat to world peace, is a spent force. It has reverted to the role which the British created for it in the 1920s: saving the regime in Baghdad from the restive tribes who reject its legitimacy. The Iraqi army was never intended for an offensive mission, of the kind it engaged in when it invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait ten years later. Its primary purpose, as with almost all other Arab armies, was controlling the natives so the rulers could sell cheap oil without hindrance to the west. The Iraqi army's excessively enthusiastic pursuit of its mission followed the precedent set by its British mentors, who introduced the concept of aerial bombardment of civilians to achieve political goals. Indeed, the US and Britain continue that policy today.

"It is not at all clear that Saddam Hussein wants a change," an official in the UN Secretariat said. "The present set-up suits him. It wins him sympathy. He makes money out of sanctions. Periodic bombing improves his political position. He's keeping the US in a state of rage." If America's outrageous conduct is good for Saddam, why doesn't President Clinton adopt some other strategy? If Saddam does not want a change, why should the US serve his interests by pursuing a policy that has failed? It may be that the policy suits Clinton, giving him a place to seem tough and presidential amid his ridiculous scandals. Or it may be, as the UN official speculated, that "the US cannot admit failure".

Unicef reports that sanctions have resulted in the deaths of about 5,000 Iraqi children a month for eight years. Saddam may be as responsible for their deaths as the US, but the US could shift responsibility for the suffering squarely on to Saddam by scrapping the sanctions and enforcing a ban on military supplies. Until then, Iraqi suffering is winning the propaganda war for Saddam at home, in most of the third world, Russia, China and much of Europe.

Meanwhile, is anyone defusing tension in the Middle East, reducing arms levels and preventing the Arabs from arming themselves so that Israel can feel safe at last? Up to a point. Last month, the Gulf state of Qatar staged a trade fair for companies selling the latest in military and police technology to the Arab world. Most of the states that complain about the proliferation of weaponry in the Arab world sent representatives, who did an estimated $800 million-worth of business in tanks, armoured vehicles, assault rifles, surveillance equipment and bullet-proof vests. One popular item was the life-saving jacket worn by Mikhail Gorbachev in the days when he was so respected in his own country that someone might have killed him. No Arab head of state should be without one. American, British, French and German firms were there. So was SIBAT, the military export organisation from Israel. SIBAT was offering, in the words of Middle East Magazine, "unique and low-armoured fighting vehicles and a six-wheeled drive vehicle called Raider with a similarly unique rear pivoting double axle platform able to gain traction in most driving situations . . ." The containment doctrine has been adapted to suit altered circumstances. Israel is no longer an official enemy of most of the Gulf states. American arms manufacturers can no longer persuade the sheikhs to buy their goods, and thus send oil dollars back to America, by dangling the Soviet threat in front of them. So Iraq is a convenient enemy indeed. Did I say the policy was failing? Perhaps not.